When I am in Hong Kong, I usually stay in Causeway Bay. I often take a stroll in Victoria Park where invariably I pass in front of the majestically imposing statue of Queen Victoria. This allows me to reflect upon the remarkable rise of the British empire, of which Hong Kong was more than just a symbolic hub. In many ways, the history of Hong Kong, colonised following the first opium war, reflected the determination and brutality of British imperialism.
During my latest stay, teaching a course on Asia and globalisation, I read an extraordinary book: Nemesis: The First Iron Warship and Her World, by Adrian Marshall. It covers in meticulous detail the construction, command, crew and trajectory of the warship.
Architectural dynamics are explained, the commanders and crew are brought alive, and the narrative of its exploits is jaw-dropping stuff. While the British rulers, including, of course, Queen Victoria, may have thought they were bringing civilisation to Asia – or, at least free trade, which to the elite of Victorian times was synonymous with civilisation – the men on the empire-building ground acted with brutal savagery.
One of the most memorable lines goes: “[a] characteristic typical of many Victorian men [was] a genuine and open love of war”. It’s what got the national adrenaline going.
In the decades following the opium wars, a lot of water has flown under the British imperial bridge.
Hong Kong was “returned” to China 20 years ago. At present, what is left of the empire are Bermuda, Gibraltar and the Falklands.
The retention of these territories is allegedly because its inhabitants were offered a choice through a referendum. There was no referendum in Hong Kong. There may yet be another epilogue shortly: if Brexit does occur, Gibraltar may be absorbed by Spain.
Britain’s post-second-world-war exit from most of its colonies in Asia and Africa went reasonably smoothly, certainly when compared to France’s messy bellicose de-colonisation. But the famous pronouncement by American statesman Dean Acheson, president Harry Truman’s secretary of state from 1949 to 1953, that “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role”, has remained resonant throughout the decades, and emphatically so in June 2017.
Acheson’s assessment applies especially to Britain’s attitudes and policies towards the European Union. I was living in the UK in 1975, when the referendum was held under Labour prime minister Harold Wilson on whether to join the then European Community; the result was an emphatic 67 per cent “yes”.
The debate, however, had been rancorous. A significant part of the population, including some who voted “yes”, felt uncomfortable being “European”. In the ensuing decades, Britain has tended to be a Euro naysayer – for example, by refusing to join the Schengen (borderless) Area – and, at best, a sideline player.
The EU itself has, in recent times, suffered from mediocre leadership, bureaucratic aloofness and a most uninspiring image, especially to young people.
Be that as it may, the main point about Brexit today is not whether it was justified, but that it has been so messy and murky. Boris Johnson, who in his Brexit campaign compared the EU (which deservedly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012) to Hitler, was appointed foreign secretary. That is deplorable.
Indeed, Prime Minister Theresa May’s government can best be described as that of a mother hen leading a flock of headless chickens. To think that this is a country that ruled an erstwhile empire over which the sun never set. Morality aside, the efficacy of British rule was admirable, indeed quite amazing.
The most appropriate word to describe the British situation following last year’s referendum is “pathetic”. Following May’s “snap” election, she is more of a hybrid mother hen/lame duck. And soon she may be a dead duck. The Eurocrats and European political leaders are having great difficulty wiping the smirks off their faces.
Where Britain goes from here, whether Brexit will occur, or whether there will be “repent” followed by “return and remain”, and what role, if any, it will assume remains obscure.
Contemporary Britain brought a great deal to the planet, including in the worlds of the arts, academia, research, science, think tanks, humanitarian and charitable organisations, NGOs, entertainment, finance, business and industry – notably start-ups, the media, and as a model in many ways of progressiveness and tolerance.
Though British imperialism may have been imbued with racist ideology and practice, as well as abuse of human rights, and while xenophobia keeps lurking in some of the more insalubrious corners of Britain – notably the tabloid press – many former colonials have assumed some of the highest positions among the British elite. To cite only the most glaring contemporary example: the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is of Pakistani origin.
Whether these assets can be preserved in the kind of unknown political universe Britain seems headed for – one that might be termed a “banana monarchy” – remains to be seen. One must hope, not just for the sake of Britain, but also that of Europe and indeed the world, that somehow it will get out of this political and psychological rut into which it has fallen.
Britain, whether “Great” or not, has a lot to offer. The continued decline of Britain will induce a decline of global civilisation.
Jean-Pierre Lehmann is emeritus professor at IMD, founder of The Evian Group, and visiting professor at the University of Hong Kong